The Stormlight Archives - on the stories we tell
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
As human beings it's important to recognize how much the stories we tell have a tangible impact on us. This is especially true for writers and other creative types. It's good fun to conjure up myth and monsters on a blank page... until we realize that the same creatures may be haunting our minds, the way we see the world, and our very self perception.
This is a strange introduction to the Stormlight Archives - likely the strangest you will read today. This is without a doubt Sanderson's magnum opus, counting five content-packed epic fantasy books with more to come. Minor spoilers ahead and a warning, as I want to shortly talk about how the series deals with mental illness, or rather, mental well-being.
In the Archives the heroes you would expect from a high fantasy epic are all beautifully flawed. Beautifully, in the sense they still are heroes; they still overcome; they still deliver the sense of payoff and epic grandeur. But damn, they are flawed. And it does get ugly. Characters sometimes hit rock bottom... and then they start to dig.
The issues portrayed include depression, guilt, depersonalization, imposter syndrome, anxiety, pathological mistrust; all portrayed in a way that hits close to home if you ever experienced anything of the sort.
It's not coincidence then that the value of stories is never downplayed in the series. Stories are pervasive - and one of the main reason why the Stormlight Archive's world feels so alive. Its own characters will often tell stories to each other. In a couple key points of the novels, this is used as a form of therapy - stories are a vehicle for insight, a way to share values through narrated experiences:
“Fleet kept running,” Kaladin growled, getting back under Elhokar’s arm. “What?” “He couldn't win, but he kept running. And when the storm caught him, it didn't matter that he’d died, because he’d run for all he had.”
(Words of radiance, Sanderson, 2014)
Interestingly, this goes both ways. Characters can get stuck into their own narrative when the truth is too hard to bear; a coping mechanism turned into hindrance to the character's growth and well-being.
Another example is Kaladin, one of the main characters. He suffers from a form of depression (which again, feels very real, and doesn't get magically resolved to the plot convenience). During his dark moods, he can't remember anything good that has happened to him. His accomplishments seem to amount to nothing. He is unable to "see the light", as everything gets filtered through the very dark lenses of his perception.
The emphasis on the importance of stories is in no way accidental: it's embedded in the text meta-narrative.
‘What you saw belongs to you. A story doesn’t live until it is imagined in someone’s mind.’
(The way of kings, Sanderson, 2010)
Another character, Dalinar, faces this time and time again. At various stages of his arc he deals with written texts and the way they shape culture. He often has to face (and is haunted by) his bad reputation. Sometime this takes the form of fighting with prejudices, bad press, and slander. Other times, in a strikingly powerful scene in Oathbringer, it's about taking accountability of his own actions.
Stories are then the filters through we experience reality. Humans are storytelling animals (The storytelling animal, Gottschal, 2012) - a refrain you'll find often in the niche between psychology and narrative theory.
To cut to the point, the books in the Stormlight Archives are a great read and an unending source of food for thought. Especially if you have the urge of storytelling (or if you're being pestered by a very fastidious muse).